The Art of Mak­ing Silk Flow­ers

Mak­ing silk flow­ers is a unique Bei­jing folk craft and a na­tional-level in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural her­itage item. Hua’er­jin is a well-known fam­ily in mak­ing silk flow­ers, with Jin Tiel­ing as a fifth gen­er­a­tion in­her­i­tor.

Beijing (English) - - CONTENTS - Trans­lated by Png Yu Fung Edited by Roberta Raine Pho­tos by Joe Mcnally (U. S.), pho­tos cour­tesy of Jin Tiel­ing

The “Hua’er­jin” fam­ily has worked in mak­ing silk flow­ers for more than a cen­tury. Jin Tiel­ing is the fifth gen­er­a­tion in­her­i­tor.

Bei­jingers love grow­ing flow­ers and there­fore nat­u­rally en­joy vis­it­ing flower shops. In old Bei­jing, how­ever, flower shops that only sold fresh flow­ers were rare. Ac­cord­ing to his­tor­i­cal records, most flower shops in the past, be­sides sell­ing fresh flow­ers, also sold silk flow­ers that were man­u­fac­tured in a work­shop at the back of the shop. Such flower shops were mainly lo­cated in Chong­wen­men­wai, along a famous street named Huashi (“flower mar­ket”) Street, so named for the prod­ucts sold there. The word hua (“flower”) in the street name refers specif­i­cally to silk flow­ers, rather than fresh flow­ers as one might ex­pect, and is pro­nounced in the Bei­jing di­alect by adding an “er” sound at the end of the word hua— or Hua'er­shi.

Mak­ing silk flow­ers is a unique Bei­jing tra­di­tional folk craft and a na­tional-level in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural her­itage item. Ac­cord­ing to records, mak­ing silk flow­ers, also known as jinghua (Bei­jing flow­ers), orig­i­nated in the Liao (AD 916–1125) and Jin (1115–1234) dy­nas­ties. The flow­ers are made from silk, silk fab­ric and satin, and the process con­sists of var­i­ous steps, such as chis­el­ing, dye­ing, mould­ing, starch­ing and as­sem­bling. In Yan­jing su­ishiji (“sea­sonal records of Yan­jing”), it is de­scribed as fol­lows: “Go to­wards the east of Chong­wen­men­wai. There is a fair on the 4th, 14th and 24th days of the month in the first month of the lu­nar year. At the fair, women wear pa­per flow­ers in­stead of fresh flow­ers in their hair. The flow­ers, which are made of dif­fer­ent ma­te­ri­als such as silk fab­ric, rice pa­per and other nat­u­ral ma­te­ri­als, are hardly dis­tin­guish­able from real flow­ers.”

Bei­jing is the home­town of silk flow­ers, and Huashi Street is the place to find them. Among all the skill­ful craftsmen in the flower mar­ket area, the well-known man­u­fac­tur­ing fam­ily called Hua’er­jin is the most famous. This shop not only rep­re­sents the art of Bei­jing silk flow­ers, but also suc­cess­ful craftsmen of old Bei­jing.

Rep­utable Hua’er­jin

Jin Tiel­ing is the fifth-gen­er­a­tion owner of Hua'er­jin, and is a rep­re­sen­ta­tive and in­her­i­tor of this tangible cul­tural her­itage. Be­fore he was ten, he started learn­ing the art from his father, Jin Yulin, and helped out with the work at home. He has been in this trade for about half a cen­tury and is now over 60 years old. Jin be­lieves that he will never be able to be as re­mark­able as his father. “My father was an Im­pe­rial Guard who pro­tected the em­peror. He was a tal­ented man who could wres­tle, and he even be­came a na­tional model worker, a mem­ber of the Chi­nese Peo­ple's Po­lit­i­cal Con­sul­ta­tive Con­fer­ence and a del­e­gate of the Na­tional Peo­ple's Congress.” Speak­ing of his father, Jin Tiel­ing could not hide his ad­mi­ra­tion. He said proudly, “He was a great fig­ure!”

Hua'er­jin stands out among the hun­dreds of silk flower shops in Bei­jing, and has gained con­sid­er­able fame. This was pos­si­ble only be­cause of Jin Yulin. For three gen­er­a­tions, the Jin fam­ily made flow­ered hair­pins as a liv­ing and were paid by the im­pe­rial fam­ily. Jin Yulin be­longed to the fourth gen­er­a­tion of his fam­ily to con­tinue this trade. At that time, Hua'er­jin had already gained a rep­u­ta­tion at the flower mar­ket. Ac­cord­ing to Hua’er­jin caix­i­ang (“con­jec­tures about Hua'er­jin”), writ­ten by Han Chun­ming in 1904, be­fore Jin Yulin turned 13, he had already joined hands with his father to com­plete the tasks as­signed by the palace, even though he had only four years of

ex­pe­ri­ence. Within ten days, they com­pleted mak­ing lo­tus silk flow­ers in time for Em­press Dowa­ger Cixi's (re­gency: 1835–1908) birth­day on Oc­to­ber 10 of the lu­nar cal­en­dar. The life­like lo­tuses filled Kun­ming Lake at the sum­mer palace, greatly pleas­ing Em­press Dowa­ger Cixi. Af­ter that, the Im­pe­rial House­hold Depart­ment started des­ig­nat­ing Hua'er­jin to make what­ever flow­ers the palace re­quired.

Jin Yulin was gifted and could eas­ily grasp the skills re­quired in mak­ing silk flow­ers. How­ever, it was also due to his in­tel­li­gence that he picked up knowl­edge at ran­dom and was cu­ri­ous about al­most ev­ery­thing. Mak­ing silk flow­ers was just an­other fun thing for him to do. Apart from this, he was also in­ter­ested in Pek­ing Opera, col­lect­ing and wrestling on horse­back. He later be­came an Im­pe­rial Guard at the palace. In 1914, the Im­pe­rial Guard was re-or­gan­ised, so Jin Yulin left the For­bid­den City and re­turned to the silk flower shop at Huashi Street. With his ex­pe­ri­ence from work­ing at the palace and his pop­u­lar­ity among the pub­lic, he man­aged Hua'er­jin well. In the fol­low­ing year, Jin Yulin's father passed the busi­ness over to him.

Ten years ear­lier, when Hua'er­jin had been tasked to make silk flower lo­tuses for Em­press Dowa­ger Cixi's birth­day, Jin Yulin was still an as­sis­tant to his father and at­tended to im­por­tant pro­cesses like spray­ing the flow­ers with fra­grance and mak­ing dew­drops on the petals. How­ever, not long af­ter Jin Yulin took over the busi­ness, he ac­cepted a busi­ness of­fer that no other silk flower store dared to take up; it was this deal that made him famous.

In 1916, a for­eigner from the Bei­jing Le­ga­tion Quar­ter brought a fresh Chi­nese rose as a spec­i­men to Hua'er­jin and re­quested that some flower ac­ces­sories be made based on this flower. Jin Yulin used sateen to cre­ate the petals and then bonded the petals, branches and leaves nicely into one, cre­at­ing a bright pink replica of the Chi­nese rose. The for­eigner was so amazed by the dif­fer­ent tones on the petals, dew­drops and fra­grance that he placed a huge or­der.

In 1954, Jin Yulin took the lead in join­ing Bei­jing's first silk flower pro­duc­ers' co­op­er­a­tive and later be­came the chief de­signer of the

Bei­jing Silk Flower Fac­tory. He earned a monthly salary of 170 yuan, which was much higher than the fac­tory man­ager and al­most the same as cadres at the depart­ment level and uni­ver­sity pro­fes­sors. The 60-year-old Jin Yulin was still en­er­getic then. He cre­ated a unique pot of flow­ers with cot­ton, an idea that was fresh and new for ev­ery­one. Jin Yulin was the first per­son to use cot­ton as a ma­te­rial for mak­ing flow­ers. Un­der his guid­ance, the Bei­jing Silk Flower Fac­tory be­came the bench­mark for the in­dus­try na­tion­wide, as well as the top en­ter­prise in the city for many years. In 1972, the shop­ping street of Wang­fu­jing re-es­tab­lished its cus­tomer service sec­tion for Bei­jing arts and crafts and re­quired silk flow­ers for its dis­play. At that time, the silk flow­ers in Bei­jing Silk Flower Fac­tory were dam­aged and could not be re­pro­duced, so the per­son in charge came to Jin Yulin for help. Jin was already in his eight­ies and was ill; as he made the silk flow­ers, he would of­ten cough up blood. Jin Tiel­ing, who was in mid­dle school, came home one night and saw his father work­ing tire­lessly at his desk de­spite his pain. Jin Tiel­ing was so touched that he was moved to tears.

Jin Tiel­ing will never for­get one beau­ti­ful evening when 16-year-old Jin Tiel­ing and his father were walk­ing along a street, in the glow of sun­set and with an au­tumn breeze blow­ing, each holding a pot of silk chrysan­the­mums. He saw his father's glis­ten­ing grey hair in the light of the set­ting sun. A light breeze gen­tly ruf­fled his father's hair and then all of a sud­den, Jin Tiel­ing could feel his father's pas­sion. He looked at his father with tears in his eyes, and the cor­ners of his father's mouth turned up into a smile.

Shap­ing Petals

The world of beau­ti­ful flow­ers pro­vides in­fi­nite in­spi­ra­tion for silk flower craftsmen, and pro­duc­ing silk flow­ers that look ex­actly like real fresh flow­ers is Hua'er­jin's spe­cial­ity. Ev­ery silk flower is made with artis­tic in­no­va­tion and great skill.

In Jin Tiel­ing's mem­ory, his father would al­ways visit parks and fields to ob­serve the colours and forms of fresh flow­ers be­fore mak­ing silk flow­ers. To make plum blos­soms, for ex­am­ple, Jin Yulin spent sev­eral hours stand­ing in the snow and cold ob­serv­ing the flow­ers out­doors. When he had to make a bon­sai as­para­gus fern, he ob­served the plant over and over again, and even looked at the small pieces of spun yarn with a mag­ni­fy­ing glass be­fore he found his in­spi­ra­tion. Many were amazed by the end prod­uct but did not know the ef­fort be­hind it. Dur­ing the con­cep­tual stage, Jin Yulin would wake up in the mid­dle of the night to work. Un­for­tu­nately, no one has ever been able to recre­ate an as­para­gus fern like the one he made.

Af­ter de­sign­ing the flower's shape, the next step is to select the ma­te­rial. There are many types of ma­te­rial with dif­fer­ent char­ac­ter­is­tics that silk flower craftsmen are par­tic­u­lar about. Silk, damask silk, spun silk, and rice pa­per are some of the ma­te­ri­als used for mak­ing silk flow­ers. Silk can cre­ate a bright, real and el­e­gant ef­fect and is suit­able for dye­ing. Yarn is per­me­able, ex­quis­ite and soft, while satin is shiny and soft, mak­ing it suit­able for mak­ing head­dress flow­ers; rice pa­per is ac­tu­ally made from a type of plant called Te­tra­panax pa­pyrifer (rice-pa­per plant) and thus pro­duces a re­al­is­tic ef­fect.

How­ever, as most of these ma­te­ri­als are too soft to start with, they have to be pro­cessed with starch be­fore they are firm and flat enough to make petals and leaves and be ready for dye­ing. In the process of starch­ing, the right amount of starch must be used—not too much or it will be sticky, but too lit­tle will make it too soft. Af­ter this, the ma­te­rial is left to dry and then moulded into the shape of petals with a chisel. Fi­nally, the ma­te­rial is ready for dye­ing.

Dye­ing is a key process in the mak­ing of silk flow­ers. The lobe and base of the pe­tal on ev­ery type of flower is dif­fer­ent and the colour and lus­ter on the flower bud and edges vary. Hence, dye­ing is a dif­fi­cult task, as ev­ery small ad­just­ment to the dye can al­ter the re­sult. Ac­cord­ing to Jin Tiel­ing, his father was so skill­ful at dye­ing that he could add wa­ter to the re­main­ing dye to cre­ate the same tone.

In fact, this was not Jin Yulin's per­sonal

skill, but a spe­cial dye­ing tech­nique of Hua'er­jin, borne out of long ex­pe­ri­ence and prac­tice. First, the dye must be de­cocted in a ce­ramic pot, as this will give a bet­ter ef­fect than dye de­cocted in a metal pot. Af­ter this, the sed­i­ment is re­moved from the bot­tom of the pot. Sec­ond, the dye colour must be care­fully re­searched to get the ex­act right hue, and then the dye must be ad­justed by check­ing for spots of colour in the liq­uid. In ad­di­tion, there is a tech­nique called “colour top­ping,” where the flower is dyed three or four times to get the right tone. In a nut­shell, the ob­jec­tive of dye­ing is to cre­ate a bright colour that looks fresh and alive.

Mould­ing Process

Af­ter com­plet­ing the dye­ing process, Jin Tiel­ing places the dyed petals neatly on a tray to pre­pare for the next step: mould­ing the petals.

Most of the tools used to mould the petals are wooden ones. The shape of the arch on the pe­tal dif­fers ac­cord­ing to the de­gree of flower bloom. Jin Tiel­ing uses a va­ri­ety of tools, in­clud­ing tweez­ers, glue, a pig­ment dish and dif­fer­ent types of small mal­lets. The mal­lets are spe­cially made for mould­ing silk flower petals; their han­dles can be gripped eas­ily while the mal­let heads come in dif­fer­ent sizes and shapes, sharp or round. Jin Tiel­ing places a pile of petals on his palm and uses a round-headed mal­let to press against them. He then re­moves the petals that had clung to the mal­let, and leaves them to dry.

Jin Tiel­ing said, “Great at­ten­tion must be paid to the mould­ing process since there are hun­dreds or even thou­sands of petals, and how to ar­range and stick them to­gether to make a flower head de­pends on one's own aes­thet­ics; with­out this, one could make flow­ers that look un­real. En­sur­ing mois­ture con­tent is also im­por­tant. If the flower pe­tal is too wet, it will be dif­fi­cult to mould, but if a pe­tal is too dry it may have creases.” Af­ter the petals are dried, Jin Tiel­ing glues them to­gether with the help of tweez­ers. Each flower con­tains a bud with yel­low-coloured pollen grains. Jin Tiel­ing once made a project in­volv­ing red plum blos­soms with 60 pollen grains in each flower; in to­tal, he made a few thou­sand pollen grains for that project. The fi­nal step is to at­tach all the parts of the flower to­gether.

Jin Tiel­ing's favourite hobby is grow­ing flow­ers—once he starts on this topic, he can talk about it all day. For ex­am­ple, he said that there are count­less dif­fer­ent va­ri­eties of chrysan­the­mum of all dif­fer­ent sizes and shapes; flower shapes in­clude round, lo­tusshaped, pine-cone shaped, whisker-shaped, and so on. They also come in all colours, such as red, yel­low, white, pur­ple and green, and they may have sin­gle colours or more than one colour. He has been ob­serv­ing chrysan­the­mums in minute de­tail for so many years that he knows how the colour of their buds change as they grad­u­ally open, start­ing out a deep colour and then get­ting lighter as they ma­ture. He has also ob­served how sea­sonal changes af­fect the colour of flow­ers and leaves: in the spring the tiny shoots ap­pear look­ing bright and tender; in sum­mer the plants grow vig­or­ously and the leaves are dark green; then in au­tumn, the colours change again, with pink­ish-red ap­pear­ing on the backs of the leaves.

Ad­mir­ing His Father’s Work

Jin Tiel­ing has been in this trade for more than 50 years. “I grew up mak­ing flow­ers with my father. I be­came an as­sis­tant at home around the same time as when I started at­tend­ing school. I did not vol­un­teer, but rather, the at­mos­phere at home made me want to help,” ex­plained Jin. Even though his father was a chief de­signer and famous crafts­man, it wasn't easy for him to get his feei in the door, and it was dif­fi­cult to get a job at the silk flower fac­tory due to its pop­u­lar­ity. In 1974, when he had just grad­u­ated from mid­dle school, he was sent to guard the Ming Tomb Reser­voir.

In 1978, Deng Xiaop­ing gave a speech in which he said that the coun­try must pro­tect older ar­ti­sans and folk arts in or­der to pass them on to fu­ture gen­er­a­tions. Bei­jing started seek­ing out these old craftsmen, and they found Jin Tiel­ing at the Ming Tombs Reser­voir. “I didn't choose silk flow­ers; in­stead, the craft chose me,” said Jin Tiel­ing.

Jin Tiel­ing worked ex­tremely hard, as he had the re­spon­si­bil­ity to up­hold his father's rep­u­ta­tion and not dis­grace Hua'er­jin. In 1982, when he was only 28, he won the high­est award at the “Na­tional In­dus­trial Art Hun­dred Flower Awards” for his work, which fea­tured a pot flower over a me­tre tall, with black­ish green leaves and bright yel­low flow­ers the size of the rim of a bowl. The flow­ers looked del­i­cate and charm­ing and had long petals that “grew” ver­ti­cally to­wards the floor, sim­i­lar to the ges­ture of a shy lady.

Jin Tiel­ing en­joys mak­ing chrysan­the­mum silk flow­ers, es­pe­cially a type of chrysan­the­mum called shizhang zhu­lian, which was his father's most well-known work and has now be­come his spe­cial­ity. It is ex­tremely hard to grow in na­ture due to the long and thin petals, which makes it hard for nu­tri­ents to reach the pe­tal tip. Jin Tiel­ing spent a month mak­ing a silk flower of this. He first chis­eled silk into the shape of small petals and then cut out over 1000 flaps. Next, he dyed the petals and moulded them af­ter dry­ing. Fi­nally, he used tweez­ers to at­tach the petals out­wards, start­ing from the buds. The last step was to make the flower stem by wrap­ping cot­ton pa­per around iron wire. Each and ev­ery step is cru­cial in the pro­duc­tion process. Know­ing how to grow flow­ers and un­der­stand­ing plant growth is im­por­tant, as this knowl­edge can help craftsmen make flow­ers look real. Jin Tiel­ing be­lieves that in or­der to make the best silk flow­ers, skill alone is not enough, a crafts­man should also un­der­stand ev­ery­thing about flow­ers.

Times have changed and the good old days when Huashi Street had more than 1,000 flower shops are gone. For­tu­nately, peo­ple can rem­i­nisce about its glo­ri­ous past in the Huashi Com­mu­nity Mu­seum, where the leg­endary story of Hua'er­jin oc­cu­pies an ex­hi­bi­tion hall. Even though Jin Tiel­ing won the “Na­tional In­dus­trial Art Hun­dred Flower Awards” at a young age, he thinks that his achieve­ment is noth­ing com­pared his father's. “In my eyes, my father is like a moun­tain, while I am a child who is al­ways look­ing up at him,” he said.

Shap­ing petals with tweez­ers

At­tach­ing petals to­gether

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from China

© PressReader. All rights reserved.